Friday, June 29, 2007

Cupcake heaven

The whole world seems to be in love with cupcakes. Maybe it's their cute size and shape, or the fact that they feel less indulgent than a big slice of cake, or just that they seem to invoke a party atmosphere. There's been a spate of cupcake books recently featured in the food news, so it seems the trend is definitely not over.

My mothers' group recently held a joint first birthday party for our babies. In between reminiscing about our first meeting, lamenting how quickly the first year had gone and that our little newborns were now toddlers, and chasing said toddlers around the playgym, we of course found time for birthday cake. I was one of the designated cake makers and what better choice could there be than vanilla cupcakes iced with bright green, pink and yellow icing?

Jennifer Graham, of Crabapple Cupcake Bakery fame, recently published her cookbook book, which spilled the secrets of her fabulous little cupcakes. The basic vanilla cupcakes were delicious little morsels, loved by both adults and children alike. I made and tinted a basic butter icing, rather than Jennifer's buttercream, which seemed too rich for our little audience.

VANILLA CUPCAKES

2 3/4 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
200g softened unsalted butter
1 cup caster sugar
4 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 170 degrees. Line two 12-hole muffin trays with cupcake papers.

Sift flour and baking powder. Cream the butter for 1-2 minutes. Add the caster sugar one-third at a time, beating for two minutes after each addition. After the last addition, beat until light and fluffy and the sugar is almost dissolved. Add the eggs one a time, beating for one minute after each addition or until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract.

Add one-third of the flour and beat on low speed until combined. Add half the milk and beat until combined. Repeat with remaining flour and milk, finishing with the flour. Be careful not to overbeat or the mixture will toughen. Spoon the mixture into cupcake papers until they are about three-quarters full. Cook for 18-20 minutes. Turn out of the tin and cool on a wire rack.

Recipe from The Crabapple Bakery Cupcake cookbook

Friday, June 22, 2007

Another choice for breakfast

For someone like me who is addicted to recipes, the world of food blogging is a dangerous place. Every search brings up a new site (or a bookmarked favourite) and a new recipe, usually accompanied by drool-inducing photos. I print off the recipe and add it to my alreading bulging file, wondering when I'll ever get the time to try out all these dishes.

The other fun part about food blogging is discovering kindred spirits, people with a similar philosophy and outlook on food. It's also interesting to see inspiration strike different writers at the same time. I recently featured an energising breakfast loaf, studded with craisins and dried apricots. At the same time, Cindy from Where's the Beef wrote about a chai coconut breakfast cake. It looked delicious, so I had to give it a go. A quick search of the pantry revealed all the chai tea bags were gone, so it was off to T2 to buy some of their divine looseleaf tea. I also only had shredded coconut and a tub of apple and pear puree, so I adjusted the recipe accordingly. The breakfast cake is lovely and dense, with a whiff of gingerbread and the sweet spiciness of chai. I found it too sweet for breakfast but it makes a perfect mid-morning snack.

Coconut chai breakfast cake

Thanks to Cindy from Where's the Beef for this recipe

2 chai tea bags (or use 2-3 teaspoons looseleaf chai)
1/3 cup rolled oats, blended lightly in a food processor
1 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 cup plain flour
1 teaspoon bicarb soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup apple puree
1 tablespoon vinegar
almond essence (Cindy advises to skip this. I added a few drops but couldn't really taste it)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup dessicated (or shredded) coconut, with 2 tablespoons reserved

Brew the chai teabags in 1 cup of hot water, and let the water cool. (If you use looseleaf tea, you'll need to strain once the water cools).

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Grease a small to medium cake tin (or line with non-stick baking paper).

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, stir together the blended oats, flours, bicarb soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger and sugar. Add the remaining ingredients, except for the reserved coconut. Mix well and pour into the cake tin. Sprinkle with the remaining coconut and bake until a skewer comes out clean. The original recipe specifies baking for 25 minutes. Cindy's took 30-35 minutes and mine took about 45 minutes, so it depends on your oven!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Crusty Irish soda bread



Nothing beats the smell of fresh bread baking. The aroma escapes from the oven and wafts around the house, making mouths water and tummies rumble. It's almost impossible to resist cutting a slice from the loaf after it emerges from the oven and smothering it in melted butter.

There's something therapeutic and relaxing about making bread. The simple combination of flour, yeast, salt and water is transformed through vigorous kneading from a crumbly mix to a silky dough that magically doubles in size as you let it prove. While you do need to set aside several hours to make bread, it's not difficult and is a welcome antidote to the stresses and fast pace of modern life.

Sometimes, though, you want fresh bread but don't have the time to wait for the bread to rise and bake. Enter Irish soda bread, which doesn't use yeast but instead uses bicarbonate soda, instead of yeast, as its rising agent. It's like a giant crusty brown scone but has a thick texture similar to sourdough. It tastes best when it's eaten warm or toasted. Freshly cooked and smeared with butter, it's a perfect partner to my seafood chowder.

IRISH SODA BREAD

450g plain white flour (or use a combination of white and wholemeal)
1 teaspoon bicarbonate soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon sea salt, ground to a powder
1 teaspoon sugar
300ml buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Sift the flour, bicarb soda, cream of tartar and sea salt into a bowl and stir in the sugar. Add the buttermilk and mix with a knife or your fingers to a soft dough. If the dough is too dry to come together, add a little extra buttermilk or a tablespoon or two of warm water but don't overmix.

Flour your hands and briefly knead the dough. Pat the dough into a mounded round and place onto a floured baking tray. Cut a deep cross in the top of the loaf. Bake in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes. Cover the top loosely with greaseproof paper and bake for another 15 minutes or until the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.

This bread is best eaten on the day it's made but it does freeze well.

This recipe is based on a recipe by Jill Dupleix

FOODIE BLOGROLL

Jenn, the Leftover Queen, has come up with a great initiative - The Foodie Blogroll. This has taken off among food bloggers, so congratulations to Jenn for this wonderful idea. Check it out in the sidebar.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Menu for a cold winter's night





The weather forecast was for a top of 11 degrees, with rain and possible hail and thunderstorms. It's the sort of day that makes you want to stay indoors and dream of stew. I find stew and casseroles such comforting winter food. At the first sign of frost, I start thinking of chunks of beef or lamb, slowly simmered in a sauce of stock, red wine and tomatoes and flavoured with roast vegetables, served with a big mound of mash or polenta, or thick vegetable and lentil stews, or soups, or puddings - the sort of comfort food that warms you up from the inside out.

A perennial favourite in our household is my grandmother's beef casserole with parsley dumplings. Adam loves this dish so much that he requests it every year for his birthday, despite the fact that it falls in February and stew is often the last thing I feel like on a hot summer day! This casserole is easy to make and fills the house with warm, comforting aromas while it cooks. The parsley dumplings add a homey touch and elevate the casserole to a higher level. I serve this with greens on the side, as there's no need to have potatoes, rice or polenta as well as the dumplings.

Issue 32 of Donna Hay magazine featured maple pear tarte tatin on the front cover, the caramelised pear slices glistening on a bed of puff pastry. I've never been a huge fan of pears but this recipe looked delicious and easy to make, so I decided to give it a go. I'm now a pear convert! The pear slices are softly caramelised and contrast beautifully with the crunch of the pastry. It's a soft and sweet, but not overpowering, finish to a meal.

BEEF CASSEROLE WITH PARSLEY DUMPLINGS

750g stewing steak (such as gravy beef)
3 tablespoons plain flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
black pepper
1 teaspoon dry mustard
2 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, sliced
3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 1/4 cups beef stock
1 dessertspoon worcestershire sauce

DUMPLINGS

1 cup SR flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
30g butter
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Cut meat into cubes. Mix flour in a freezer bag with mustard, salt and pepper. Add the meat cubes and shake to coat. Melt the butter in a large, ovenproof casserole. Brown the meat in batches and remove (you may need to add more butter). Saute the onion until translucent, then add the carrot and cook a little longer. Stir in any remaining flour (if you don't have any left over, stir in 1 or 2 tablespoons) and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the stock and worcestershire sauce, and stir until it thickens and boils. Return the meat to the casserole dish. Cover and cook in a moderate oven (180 degrees) for 1 1/2 hours. (Check every half hour, as you may need to add some extra water or stock if it's drying out). Place the dumplings on top, cover and cook for 15 minutes.

To make dumplings, sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Beat the egg in a separate bowl and add the milk and the parsley. Make a well in the flour and stir in the liquid to make a soft dough. Scoop out and drop on top of the bubbling casserole.

You can substitute lamb for the beef and make dumplings with two teaspoons of chopped mint instead of the parsley.

MAPLE PEAR TARTE TATIN

30g butter
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 pear, sliced
1 sheet of puff pastry

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Melt the butter in a non-stick ovenproof pan (should not have plastic handles). Add the sliced pear and cook for 5-6 minutes, or until the pear is soft. Take off heat and fit the pastry sheet snugly over the pears. Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and golden. Stand for 1 minute, then tip out onto a plate and serve with cream or ice-cream.

Based on a recipe in issue 32 of Donna Hay magazine

Friday, June 15, 2007

A little morsel of sweetness



It's mid-morning or mid-afternoon and the craving starts. Just something small and sweet, a voice whispers in your brain. Or a piece of chocolate. Something to inject a little morsel of sweetness into your day.

I haven't worked out whether these cravings are physical (your body needs a sugar hit to keep it going) or mental (I really need some chocolate now!) But when you decide to give in, it's best to do it with a tasty home-cooked biscuit than something mass-produced, flavourless and full of preservatives.

Cakes and biscuits are often seen as wicked calorie boosters, particularly in the current debate about obesity. While I think generous portion sizes and too much processed food are more to blame, sweet treats should certainly be enjoyed in moderation. But if you've made the decision to indulge, make sure you choose wisely and eat something that you'll enjoy, rather than something that will only half-sate your craving and leave you feeling guilty afterwards.

These sweet little biscuits definitely fit the bill. They use few ingredients, all of which will be found in any fridge and pantry, they take minimal time to mix up and bake, and they partner beautifully with a cup of tea or coffee.

These biscuit recipes are from my grandmother's cookbook, so I've updated the recipes to metric measurements.

CARAMEL COOKIES

115g butter
115g sugar
1 tablespoon golden syrup
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
225g SR flour, sifted

Put butter, sugar, golden syrup, milk and vanilla into a saucepan and boil gently for five minutes. Cool, then mix in flour. Roll into balls and flatten with a fork. Bake in a moderate oven (180 degrees) for 10-12 minutes.

BURNT BUTTER BISCUITS

115g butter
115g caster sugar
1 egg
150g SR flour, sifted

Cook the butter in a saucepan until a light brown colour. Cool. Add the caster sugar and beat to a cream, then add the egg and beat well. Add the flour (I found 150g was not quite enough flour, so I added some more, tablespoon by tablespoon, until I had a soft dough). Roll into small balls and press half an almond in each. Cook in a moderate oven (180 degrees) for 10-12 minutes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Hearty seafood chowder

The thought of Irish food brings forth the cliches of potatoes, beef and Guinness pie, potatoes and potatoes. While it's true that we ate a lot of potatoes in Ireland (including being served chips as a side dish to my fish pie topped with a generous serve of mashed potato), we also found a lot of other interesting and flavoursome dishes. A dozen oysters were perfectly offset by a pint of Guinness (much to my surprise). And, although it was June and meant to be summer, the 17 degree days meant thick bean and vegetable soup or seafood chowder always went down well.

County Donegal, in the northwest corner of Ireland, is rugged and barren but breathtakingly beautiful with huge mountains and long green valleys. It feels isolated and I can imagine how bleak it would be in winter, with storms roaring across the seas and through the mountain ranges. We stopped at the town of Rossnowlaugh to have lunch at Smugglers Creek, an award-winning restaurant and pub that is perched high on a cliff overlooking Donegal Bay and the long curl of a white sandy beach. Pinned near the front door was a restaurant review that recommended the "toe-curlingly good" Atlantic seafood chowder. As we settled ourselves into the window table overlooking the sea, there was no question of us ordering anything else, except for one unfortunate travelling companion who was pregnant at the time and had to content herself with the tomato and bacon soup. She said it was delicious but she looked mournfully at our bowls as we raved and raved and raved about the chowder, which was thick and creamy, loaded with plump seafood, and with a lovely lingering aftertaste of dill.

Of course the recipe is a well-guarded secret, so I set about trying to replicate it when we returned home. Although chowder should have a generous helping of mixed seafood - perhaps chunks of white fish or salmon, mussels, prawns and scallops, I cheat and use my favourite marinara mix from the Queen Victoria Market. While this is not strictly authentic, it cuts down considerably on the preparation and cooking time. Sometimes I include dill in the chowder and sometimes, inspired by a recipe in Irish Soups and Breads by Nuala Cullen, I add a pinch of saffron. Either way, this is a hearty soup for a cold winter's night.

SEAFOOD CHOWDER

500 - 750g marinara mix (or make up your own combination of seafood)
6 rashers bacon, sliced into strips
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 leek, sliced
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 celery stick, diced
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
900ml water or fish stock
300ml cream
150g butter
1-2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon chopped dill or 1 pinch of saffron
salt and pepper
a small handful of chopped parsley

Melt the butter in a saucepan and cook the bacon until crisp. Add the vegetables and fry for a minute or two. Stir in the flour, then gradually add the water or stock, stirring until smooth. Cover and cook gently until the vegetables are tender (about 10-15 minutes). Add the cream and the seafood and cook for a few minutes, until the seafood is cooked. Add the dill/saffon and the salt and pepper. Serve in soup bowls and scatter with the bacon and parsley.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Energising breakfasts



I can't function if I don't eat breakfast. If I miss it, there's a large hole in my stomach that can't be filled, even if I stuff myself for the rest of the day.

Aside from the emptiness factor, and from the health and nutritional benefits of breaking your overnight fast, breakfast - and brunch - are fun. Whether it's a bowl of bircher muesli, a platter of fresh fruit drizzled with yoghurt, or a weekend indulgence of eggs or pancakes, it starts the day off on a good note and it never feels sinful to indulge at breakfast because you know you've got the rest of the day to work it off.

My mum has a delicious, healthy muesli recipe that we've been mixing up for years, chock-full of dried fruit and nuts. My weekend indulgence is buttermilk pancakes with bacon or sinfully creamy scrambled eggs. I always make Adam a Valentine's Day breakfast of scrambled eggs on sourdough toast, complete with crispy bacon rolls, roasted tomatoes and garlicky mushrooms on the side. I quite often mix up bircher muesli on Sunday night to see us through the week, or I make Bill Granger's justifiably famous coconut bread that can be frozen and reheated for a quick breakfast.

In Bill's latest cookbook, Every Day, he featured an apple, dried cherry and almond loaf as an energising breakfast idea. Not having all the specified ingredients on hand, I adapted the recipe to suit my needs. The dried fruit studded throughout the loaf gives it a pretty jewel-like appearance. It freezes well and can be thawed and lightly toasted for a great start to the day.

BREAKFAST LOAF

50g rolled oats
300ml milk
240g self-raising flour (white or wholemeal)
1 teaspoon baking powder
125g craisins (or dried cherries)
60g dried apricots, chopped (or use 50g chopped and diced dried apples)
75g brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons honey
1 egg, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons roughly chopped almonds, plus 2 tablespoons extra

Put the oats in a bowl, pour over the milk and leave to soak for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Line a 1kg loaf tin with non-stick baking paper.

Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl and stir in the rolled oats, dried fruit, sugar, cinnamon, honey, egg and almonds. Mix well.

Spoon the mixture into the tin, level the top and sprinkle with extra almonds. Bake for 45 minutes or until golden brown on top and cooked through. Leave to cool a little in the tin before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Adapted from a recipe in Every Day by Bill Granger